"Food allergies are a potentially fatal medical condition that results in more than 200,000 emergency room visits a year."
Given that statistic it might be surprising to learn that there is no national standardized approach or training requirements for kitchens in dealing with food allergies. Teaching cooks and servers about food preferences or dietary imperatives is a training component mostly left up to individual food and beverage leadership. A diner may state that they are allergic to butter and request that their fish be prepared with olive oil, only to heartily polish off a slice of orange pound cake for dessert. So what gives? Cooks and servers should not, and cannot be in a position to judge the parameters of a persons stated dietary regimen. Accommodating special requests is one thing, but awareness and training in food allergens and intolerances is an aspect of food service education that may well soon move beyond current state and local mandates and into nation-wide legislation. It may be a good course of action to introduce this aspect of food safety in your operation in the coming year.
What is a food allergy?
A food allergy is when a person’s immune system reacts to a food protein because it has mistaken that food protein as a threat. Symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening.
What is the difference between food allergy and food intolerance?
Food allergy is sometimes confused with food intolerance. Food allergies involve your immune system and can be life-threatening. Intolerance is when your body has trouble digesting a food. It can make you feel badly, usually with an upset stomach, but it is not life-threatening. The most common intolerance is to lactose—which is a natural sugar found in milk.
How much of a food allergen does it take to cause a reaction?
Even trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction in some people with food allergies. Although ingestion is the primary cause of severe reactions, in some cases, skin contact or breathing in a food protein (e.g., steam from cooking shellfish) can cause symptoms.
Food Allergen “Advisory” Labeling:
Many kitchens, especially busy club kitchens with multiple menus, use pre-made foods for convenience. It is important that the ingredients in these foods be known to all who prepare and serve them. To avoid the health risks posed by food allergens, the Food and Drug Administration enforces the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. FALPA applies to the labeling of foods regulated by FDA which includes all foods except poultry, most meats, certain egg products, and most alcoholic beverages which are regulated by other federal agencies. The Act requires that food labels must clearly identify the food source names of any ingredients that are one of the major food allergens or contain any protein derived from a major food allergen. FALCPA's labeling requirements do not apply to the potential, or unintentional presence of major food allergens in foods resulting from “cross-contact” situations during prep because of shared equipment or production areas. In the context of food allergens, “cross-contact” occurs when a residue or trace amount of an allergenic food becomes incorporated into another food not intended to contain it. FDA guidance for the food industry states that food allergen advisory statements “may contain [allergen]” or “produced in a facility that also uses [allergen]”.
Look for allergens in unexpected places. The following are examples of why it is important to read all food labels very carefully as many contain one or more of the eight most common allergenic foods:
This sauce contains anchovies and/or sardines; both are fish.
Some brands of barbecue sauce contain pecans, which are listed on the label.
Imitation butter flavor
This ingredient often contains milk protein. It could be listed on the ingredient statement as either “artificial” or “natural butter flavor.”
Sweet and sour sauce
Some brands of sweet and sour sauce contain wheat and soy, most soy sauce (with the exception of gluten-free products) contains wheat.
Most brands of commercial egg substitutes contain egg white.
Some brands contain casein (a milk protein) or soy protein as a natural flavoring.
Eggs may be used on frozen soft pretzels as an egg-wash.
Peanut butter has been used to thicken chili, salsa, spaghetti sauce, and brown gravy. Peanut Butter has been used as the “glue” to hold egg rolls together. It has also been used to add crunch and texture to piecrusts and cheesecakes and has even been used in brownies and hot chocolate. If the club purchases any of these items and does not prepare them in-house, it is wise to avoid them for people with peanut or tree-nut allergies.
About Other Allergens:
Persons may still be allergic to — and have serious reactions to — foods other than the eight foods identified by the FALCPA law such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), sulfites (found in some wine products), sesame, celery and mustard.
Allergy Avoidance Action Items:
Review your current menu and provide as much information as possible about ingredients directly on the menu itself.
Instead of: Apple Cake, describe as: Apple-Walnut Cake
Use safe cooking oil
Some highly refined cooking and frying oils contain blends of ingredients such as peanuts, cotton seed and soy. If an oil has previously been used to fry foods that contain an allergen, other foods cooked in that oil may cause an allergic reaction.
Avoid cross contact
Cross contact occurs when the proteins from two or more foods mix during cooking or serving. Even a tiny amount of an allergy-causing food is enough to cause an allergic reaction in some people.
Use utensils, cutting boards and pans that have been thoroughly sanitized and color coded for specific uses.
Update member profiles frequently to include potentially new dietary concerns.
For example an individual on a new blood thinner medication regimen might have an reaction to grapefruit which interacts with the certain drugs
Train servers to ASK diners about food allergies or intolerances and clearly state on menus that diners should inform servers of food allergies or intolerances
Provide training on the meaning behind common food intolerances and those foods associated with them such as gluten, lactose and celiac disease.
A diner who feels comfortable and safe ordering from a dining venue that has detailed menus that list all ingredients, has informed and knowledgeable staff and responds willingly to accommodate special needs will become a loyal patron of that establishment. Although there is currently no cure for food allergies, comprehensive staff training in food allergy awareness builds trust with diners and those who prepare and serve food and beverage. And certainly, trust is the bread and butter of hospitality.
Chef Mary Howley is the culinary consultant to the RCS Hospitality Group and a former Executive Chef of her own catering company, several country clubs, and fine dining restaurants. She studied throughout Europe and honed her skills on the East Coast working with a myriad of culinary styles. She had the honor to serve as research and development chef for Food Unlimited, and held the position of Pastry Chef in two James Beard Dinner Events.